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A blinding battle

A man who photographs Civil War re-enactments faces his own fight with degenerative sight.

Published May 30, 2005

SAFETY HARBOR - Fritz Kirsch feels like he's living in the wrong time. But it's his passion for the past that has put him in the right place.

His Web site says "in reality, he is a 19th century photographer following the Civil War encampments." In the carport of his tiny, antique-filled Victorian home, is a horse-drawn darkroom and photographic wagon that he takes to Civil War re-enactment camps. He strives to re-create the images and feel of actual Civil War photos, sometimes using a box camera and the wet plates used at the time.

It was those photos that inadvertently saved his sight.

Kirsch, 62, has been visually impaired since birth, due to an injury caused by a doctor's forceps. His left eyelid drapes over the eye like a curtain that won't open, so he appears to be winking in photos. His "good" right eye also had defects.

In childhood, Kirsch was called "Cyclops," "One-eyed Willie," "Pirate," and "Lizard."

As a language arts teacher at Pinellas Park Middle School, he heard the whispers of students behind his back. His strategy was to chuckle along with them.

"I learned to laugh at myself," he said. "It's hard, but you learn to be tough."

In October 2003, Kirsch's Civil War re-enactment photos brought him into contact with Dr. Leonard Kirsch (no relation), a retina surgeon with the Eye Institute of West Florida.

Kirsch was displaying some of his pictures at the Tech Cafe in Safety Harbor when the doctor stopped by and admired them. The two talked and eventually came to call each other "cousin."

At that first meeting, Fritz Kirsch set up an appointment for an examination. They concluded that the potential benefit from operating on the "good" eye did not outweigh the risk.

Then, over the last year and a half, Kirsch's vision began to decline rapidly.

Reluctant to drive, he began relying on transportation from friends and colleagues.

He was having trouble grading essays, often using a magnifying glass - and referring to himself as Sherlock Holmes. His students would often print out their papers in 18-point type to help him out.

Without good sight, his photography was also threatened.

Finally, the loss of sight interfered with the renewed courtship of his ex-wife, an optician in Portland, Ore. He said he has remained in love with her for decades but she was reluctant to renew a relationship with someone who was nearly legally blind.

"My life was going down the tubes right before my eyes, pardon the pun," he said. "I was desperate and scared. But I am a born-again Christian. I got down on my knees and prayed for God to help me. I prayed for guidance and courage and for him to show me what to do."

Then he ran into Dr. Kirsch again at the Tech Cafe. The two talked and decided a re-examination was in order.

This time, Kirsch's vision was so bad that surgery and its risks appeared justified.

"He had two problems," Dr. Kirsch recalled. "He had a significant cataract and the scar tissue on the retina had grown." The scar tissue produced a distortion in vision. "He was also very nearsighted," he said.

The surgeon operated on the right retina in April, when he also removed the cataract and implanted a corrective lens.

During recovery, Kirsch had some mild swelling, but his vision continues to improve.

His vision in that eye now is 20-40 without glasses.

Three additional surgeries by three specialists at the institute are planned to correct the left eye, which is opaque from a cataract, turns downward, and is covered by the eyelid. Dr. Kirsch will implant a new lens and repair the retina. Two months later, another specialist will straighten the eye. Finally, a cosmetic surgeon will lift the eyelid to its proper position.

Today, Kirsch is a man of renewed confidence. As soon as the school year ended about a week ago, he left for Portland and, he hopes, a summer of romance.

Kirsch calls his visual recovery a miracle from God.

Dr. Kirsch sees it more as a serendipitous event.

They agree that their chance meeting was a life-changing experience for Kirsch.

"He's a miracle man," Kirsch said after his recent surgery. "My vision is probably the best it has ever been in my life. Everything is much clearer. I am reading signs and telephone numbers. I see whiter whites and brighter brights."

Recently he was standing on the front porch of his quaint bungalow in Safety Harbor, when a young woman jogged by.

"Oh, to see what I've been missing," he said.

[Last modified May 30, 2005, 01:38:11]

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